Professor Sarah Hart, the first woman Professor of Geometry at Gresham College and Professor of Mathematics and Head of Mathematics and Statistics at Birkbeck, University of London, has revealed that Mozart and Moby Dick author Herman Melville loved maths and incorporated it into their work.
During her lecture Mathematical Journeys into Fictional Worlds she said, “Herman Melville, he really liked mathematics – you can see it in his books. When he is reaching for an allusion or a metaphor, he’ll often pick a mathematical one.”
Moby Dick is full of mathematical metaphors
Professor Sarah Hart noted that Moby Dick is full of mathematical metaphors. For example, at the end of the book, Captain Ahab praises Pip, the loyal cabin boy, with geometry, saying, “True art thou, lad, as the circumference to its centre.”
Professor Sarah Hart explores the subject further in her paper, Ahab’s Arithmetic: The Mathematics of Moby Dick, recently published in the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics. She concluded that Herman Melville had an “unusually good mathematical education” and that he “actively enjoyed mathematics and mathematical ideas, and that this shines through in his work.”
Mozart’s Der Spiegel demonstrates rotational symmetry
During her research she also discovered that the violin duet Der Spiegel (The Mirror), attributed to Mozart, demonstrates rotational symmetry. The composition uses a technique known as retrograde inversion (a musical term that literally means “backwards and upside down”). The piece is played simultaneously by two violinists sitting across a table and looking at the same score, one plays from the beginning to the end, the other plays from the end to the beginning. “So the notes played by the first player are the same as those played by the second, except rotated through 180 degrees,” Hart explained during her interview with The New York Times.
Professor Sarah Hart considers the twin vocations of her career to be researching mathematics (she specialises in group theory, the mathematics of symmetry) and communicating mathematics (she once gave a talk to 900 students on ‘How to Prove Absolutely Anything’). As Professor of Geometry at Gresham College she will give 18 public lectures over three years on Mathematics, Culture and Creativity. The first part in the series was on Mathematics in Music and Writing during which she revealed that Mozart and Moby Dick author Herman Melville incorporated maths into their work.
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